Key point: The Navy and Marines use the F-5s to play the role of enemy planes during realistic war games
U.S. lawmakers are close to finalizing the Pentagon’s budget for 2020. The $738-billion National Defense Authorization Act should allow the U.S. Navy to acquire 22 used F-5E/F Tiger fighters from Switzerland for around $40 million.
The purchase arguably is a serious loss for the Swiss air force.
The F-5s are at least 35 years old and unsophisticated. But they would play an important role in U.S. service. The Navy and Marines use the F-5s to play the role of enemy planes during realistic war games, a mission that’s only growing in importance as America’s rivals expand and improve their own air arms.
One Swiss lawmaker spoke derisively of the old fighters. “If the Americans want to take over the scrap iron, they should do it,” Beat Flach, a lawmaker with the country’s green party, told SonntagsZeitung. “It’s better than having the Tigers rot in a parking lot.”
But the Americans cherish the F-5s. The Navy plans to modify the 12-ton, supersonic Tigers with new avionics, data-links and radar-jammers, bringing them up to the latest F-5N standard.
The Navy and Marines for decades have operated the nimble F-5 in the adversary role. “The design places particular emphasis on maneuverability rather than high speed, notably by the incorporation of maneuvering flaps,” according to the Navy.
The tiny jet boasts flight characteristics that are similar to many Russian-made MiGs. Most famously, F-5s stood in for MiGs in the 1986 movie Top Gun. “The F-5 offers an incredibly economic and proven solution for a range of threat presentations,” Tyler Rogoway explained at The War Zone.
By the early 2000s, however, the single-seat F-5Es and two-seat F-5Fs were wearing out. Luckily for the Navy and Marine Corps, in 2006 the Swiss air force was in the process of retiring many of its 1980s-vintage F-5s. The fighters had flown only a few thousand hours in Swiss service, making them functionally younger than the American F-5s were.